Centurion: Defender of Rome

Brad: The best thing I can say about Centurion: Defender of Rome is that it got me and about 19 others out of a day of Latin class back when we were in 9th grade.  That might not sound like much, but it’s no small praise as Latin was typically the worst class any of us had.

The high school I attended had a requirement that each student pass 2 years or foreign language classes in order to earn a Regent’s Diploma.  And the alternative – a regular non-Regent’s high school diploma – was unthinkable.  The school made it sound like a normal diploma wasn’t worth the paper it was written on – that it might as well have come with a college rejection letter printed on the back, and a job application from the local Burger King stapled to it.  So I took Latin.

Don’t ask me why I chose Latin.  Spanish was the easiest choice, with French being a close second.  Latin was hard.  Everyone in school knew this – I have no idea how since none of us had taken a day of foreign language classes yet, but it was the prevailing wisdom.  My personal theory was that while Latin might be harder, it had the advantage of being a dead language.  This meant I’d never have to worry about running into anyone who actually spoke it, and could thus avoid those humiliating situations you see in movies where the one guy is from Spain and is like “Oh, you can speak Spanish?” and then says a bunch of things in Spanish, and the other guy, with only his 2 years of high school Spanish to rely on, fumbles around and ends up saying something like “Your pants are very turtle,” much to everyone’s embarrassment.

For some reason I was deathly afraid of that ever happening to me.

This beats the hell out of Latin class

I also figured that if so many English words came from Latin, I would already know what half the words meant.  Like so many other things about my experiences in learning a foreign language, this proved to be a throughly incorrect theory.

Latin class was about as close to a guerrilla war as most kids attending a public school in an upper-middle class district are likely to experience.  Before I can fully explain why, there is something you need to understand.  Latin sucks.  Learning Latin sucks even more.  There’s approximately a billion words you need to learn, and 90% of them sound like slight variations of each other.  The grammar is completely different from English, and seemingly every single word in the language has it’s own customized set of rules for how it can or can’t be used.  Oh, and since nobody has used the language in 2,000 years, there are a lot of things that they didn’t have words for, so if one were to attempt to speak Latin in a modern setting, there’s no universal agreement on what words to use for these new things, or how the rules of grammar would apply to them.  Et tu, internet?

So yeah, we kinda hated Latin.

What had started out as a respectably sized group of over 30 students taking Latin every other day in 7th grade had dropped to about half that number by 9th grade when it became an everyday event.  The following year, which was optional, only 13 of us were taking the class.  I stuck with it for that final year, figuring it would be easier to keep taking Latin, something I already knew, rather than sign up for a new class learning something entirely unfamiliar.  This was of course based on the entirely faulty assumption that I had actually learned any Latin in the past few years, which I hadn’t.

Now add to our non-willingness to learn Latin the fact that our teacher had very little ability to control the students.  By “very little”, I mean that a kid jumped out the window once in the middle of class and she didn’t notice.  This, as you may imagine, is a pretty volatile combination.  Probably a third of class days could be most accurately described as “open rebellion” in which we did whatever the hell we wanted while she flailed helplessly.  These could be fun days, although a little scary, because there was always the threat of things getting REALLY out of control and someone getting hit by a thrown object or lit on fire.  And that’s not a totally hyperbolic statement either – some kids the year following us actually did start ripping pages out of textbooks and lit a decent sized fire during class.  The teacher, not wanting to get in trouble, didn’t report this to the office, and instead sent one student out to retrieve the fire extinguisher.  Without a hall pass.  The kid got busted (the only time I’ve ever actually heard of that happening at my old school) and sent to the office, where she waited for 10 minutes before calmly explaining to the principal the reason she was in the hall without a pass was to get the fire extinguisher because the Latin room was in flames.  In the meantime, my old Latin teacher had sealed all the windows and doors, so that the smoke wouldn’t escape and tip off anyone to what was going on inside.  Yes, this really happened.

Most days, however, we would just take turns pretending the radiator was broken and kicking the hell out of it repeatedly.  That really wasn’t fun, just kind of noisy and disruptive.  Which was still better than learning Latin.

By now, I’m sure you’re wondering what any of this has to do with Centurion.  Well, since the only way to really pacify us and keep things from getting too out of control was to not teach us Latin, we spent a lot of time not learning Latin.  Instead we would do things that had tenuous connections to the language, such as learning about the Roman Empire, mythology, and, sometimes, Franciscan monks.  We ended up watching a lot of movies this way, which might sound like fun, but only if you haven’t seen very many school movies.  This wasn’t really a tactic of appeasement so much as sedation.

Horses were larger in Roman times.  Or elephants were smaller.

And then one day, at the suggestion of yours truly, we arranged to have a Genesis hooked up into the classroom and spent the day playing Centurion.  It was glorious.  Well, at least compared to watching Theseus and the Minotaur. I was the class hero for an afternoon.

Anyway, as a game, Centurion may have been a bit too far ahead of it’s time.  It’s a kind of an early version of  the Total War games, in which you have turn-based empire building combined with real-time strategic battles.  Unfortunately, it came out in a time when creating a functional RTS was still a far-off dream.  The interface is sloppy and unintuitive, and a simple “false retreat” strategy is game-breakingly effective.  The empire-running aspects of the game are alright, but pretty limited when compared to other strategy games of the time.  Presumably, they were supposed to be supplemental to the RTS portions of the game.  It’s a fun game, just not nearly fun enough to make the Top 50.

However, for one wonderful afternoon, it saved us from having to learn about declensions or whatever, and prevented a potentially coma-inducing second viewing of Frai Iacobis.  That’s pretty good right there.  Plus, it was essential to helping me fulfill a lifelong dream of playing video games at school.  So while I do acknowledge that its not one of the 50 best games for the system, I will still always remember Centurion: Defender of Rome rather fondly.

Stryker:Centurion is a strategy game where the same strategy works in almost every battle, which makes the game pretty easy.  To make up for that, your troops can only remember one command at a time.  This means you have to each unit about the first step of your brilliant plan, wait for them to execute it, and then explain the next part to them while the battle rages on.  Not only that, but you have to issue your commands to each unit one at a time.  This doesn’t actually make the game any harder though, just more annoying.  It’s one thing to trick your enemies into walking into your trap they never saw coming, but quite another to surprise your own troops by slowly unveiling the exact same plan you’ve already used to conquer most of Europe.

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